NYC Regional Update
Best Practices Spotlight: Collaborative Leadership at Dunbar Middle School (Bronx, NY)
Collaborative leadership and practices, the fourth pillar of community schools, provides the relational “glue” that connects and reinforces the other pillars, making it foundational and critical for the success of a community school strategy. By developing a shared vision and goals and creating participatory practices for distributing responsibilities, a community school leverages the collective expertise of all of its stakeholders.
Perhaps the most essential relationship in a community school that excels in collaborative leadership is the one between the Principal and Community School Director. What does such a powerful collaboration look like at its most effective?
The Fordham CSTAC visited Paul L. Dunbar Middle School in Bronx, NY, where Principal Hesham Farid and Community School Director Merody Mejia have worked closely together, building their school community through a shared vision and spirit of collaboration.
Becoming a Community School
Farid became principal as the transition to the community school model began, and Mejia was among his first hires in his new position.
Farid: We welcomed the opportunity because we were already the essence of a community school. Ninety-five percent of our students walk to school in less than five minutes. I had already worked at the school for 13 years and in the neighborhood for 18 years. My investment in the community was already there. I was “all in” for whatever we could do to help this community and this school. I wanted to be part of that core.
Mejia: I actually came from a community school, where I was a director for an after-school program. I am from this neighborhood. I grew up a couple of blocks away from here. My daughter goes to school around here, and my mom lives around here. So I was already invested in this community. It was just a natural fit when I came in and interviewed for the position, because his vision really aligned with what I was looking for in a school. I knew that a lot of our kids needed love and attention. I wanted a very loving and caring environment. It aligned with his vision of positivity and making sure that we help our students get better every day.
“This is Dunbar.”
Farid: From the beginning, I just had her alongside. This is a strong thought partner. This is a person who gets work done. It’s a person who believes the same things that I believe. So whenever I met with my cabinet, she was there. Making structural decisions? She was there. Making decisions about programs with families? She was there. We just had that inclusivity right from the beginning.
One of our first goals was creating a team. That divisiveness—here’s the CBO, here’s the school—I did not want that. We are all one team. I don’t care if Children’s Aid pays your check and the DOE pays your paycheck. We’re all together. This is Dunbar. We are all doing it together.
And then we had an opportunity to hire some folks, and during the hiring process, the community school conversation needed to happen. That collaborative decision making in terms of hiring has allowed us to hire people that have bought in right away to the community school model. That’s been a powerful tool.
Mejia: My first year, my main focus was to build relationships with people. I realized that a lot of the work that we needed to get done wouldn’t happen if we don’t build that foundation of trust. As a community school director coming in from an outside organization, the need to build that trust was important. So we use my office as a community space. Teachers and support staff can come into my office at any time, and from a lot of these informal conversations, we were able to do a lot more formal work. When I say, “I have this idea,” they will be a lot more open to it, because I’ve already built that rapport with them.
The principal and assistant principals did a really good job making sure that I was looked at as part of the leadership team. From the beginning, when we did analysis work together, I was someone doing this work beside them.
Where we are at right now? It took a lot of time building that trust. But the relationship being built from the beginning is why we can do the work that we’re now doing.
For all of the emphasis on accountability in schools today, the work at Dunbar suggests that simply stressing responsibility isn’t enough.
Farid: Part of our vision is that we do this work together because we want to, not because of accountability measures. I don’t lead with accountability as the initial push. We’re a big family, and if you’re family, you’re doing things because you believe in each other and you believe in your kids.
We are very data-driven, and all of our teams have specific goals, and they check data and monitor progress regularly—which wasn’t where we were five years ago. We’ve had to grow that space. But because of the investment, everybody’s willing to open themselves up because we’re in this together. Rather than trying to hide the data and not let us see, we’re in a space where the response is, “How can we help?” That’s been a powerful piece.
A school like ours, we’ve been receivership. We’ve been renewal. We’ve been everything you could ever be in terms of labels that have a negative connotation to them. If we lived only by accountability, we would be coming in every day defeated. It’s quite the contrary here. For the most part, everybody’s coming in excited, happy, wanting to do something.
We do our work, and we’ve seen the test scores improve. We’ve seen our attendance improve. All of our work ties back to our vision.
Mejia: What I would like to add is that we are also looking to recognize our staff for the work that they do. The work can be completely daunting if you focus only on meeting this outcome or that expectation. That’s really important for us because it keeps our staff driving and pushing forward.
Yesterday, people came to a voluntary meeting that was during their lunch period. They opted not to take that break and to have a conversation with us. We ended up having a really powerful conversation. But you can’t get there unless you build those pieces beforehand of recognizing staff, helping them, and giving them a voice that goes beyond just the accountability that you can see in other schools.
Collaborative Leadership Challenges
As with any school that moves toward a collaborative leadership model, there have been some challenges along the way.
Mejia: I’m very honest and transparent. We’ve had moments where we don’t agree on things and we butt heads. Sometimes I come in and just say, “This is bothering me.” And he’ll say, “Let’s sit down and talk about this, and see what we can do. Let’s see if we can solve this problem.”
I also have to be reflective about myself and my own growth. When issues are happening, I have to ask myself, “What did I do to contribute to this? What can I do better next time?”
I would say from his perspective, he has to be open to what I have to say. So if I’m saying that something is a priority for the CBO, he has to see where I am coming from. I’ve had things going on with Children’s Aid that directly conflicted with something going on at Dunbar, and he’s had to understand that choosing the CBO priority is important for my own development and my own growth, and that will eventually help the school.
I think that because we’re aligned in our vision, we haven’t had many of those conflicting moments. Sometimes what differs is the way we go about delivering that vision. Sometimes we need to be creative about the solution we come up with to make sure that the needs of the CBO are met, and the needs of the school are met, as well. But I think that he’s really open to suggestions and making sure that everyone’s well taken care of.
Farid: It goes back to the idea that there’s not a separation between the needs of the CBO and the needs of the school. That’s something that’s really important to me. Sometimes we disagree, but some of our disagreement comes from us being really good complements of each other. Sometimes my head is in the clouds about something I’m very visionary about. I say, “This is what we need to do.” She can get things done.
Sometimes I want an idea to organically grow and she says, “We need dates.” So I’ll say, “Come back with five dates and I will agree with them.” I think that at this point, we’re very symbiotic. While there are disagreements, it’s more about how we approach problems and less about what we think the actual problems are.
The Importance of the Principal
Farid: Even though I’m a principal, I’m willing to say that a big roadblock to making this model work is a lack of investment from the school principal. A principal can feel it’s like another thing that they have to pay attention to, and they don’t want to pay attention to it because they have other things to pay attention to.
It’s not quantifiable at the beginning of a community school. But I was involved from the beginning. Maybe I was misinformed or maybe I was lucky, but I felt like being involved was important. I had to let people know that I had her back. Some people bought into the vision, and those who didn’t were filtered out over time.
That’s the first step. The principal has to be visible in the community school model. Conversely, the CBO has to present what they’re doing to the principal. They’re going to have to take a leap of faith and do a little project that the principal isn’t even aware that you’re doing sometimes, and then come back and say, “Hey. I did this attendance initiative. I did it with 15 kids. It worked. Look at what happened.”
Now I’m intrigued because the results are there, and it doesn’t feel like something that I have to do now. I just have to pay attention, and say, “Invite me to the next meeting.”
Expanding Collaborative Leadership
While the foundation of successful collaborative leadership at Dunbar is the relationship between the principal and the community school director, collaborative decision making includes a variety of other stakeholders.
Mejia: I would definitely say that for us, being able to do a lot of this work together with different committees has been the most impactful. We have a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) team. Both of us are on it, and we have representation from support staff and from teachers. We have an MTSS (Multi-tiered System of Support) test team, and we are working together with the instructional leadership team. We are in the cabinet together.
So we’re doing so much of this together and we’re at the space now where we’re able to pull other people in and help us with this work. So I’m not looked at as just a community school director. I’m part of the leadership team in the school. And that’s trickled down to our work in parent engagement and student leadership as well.
Having reflected on their five years of collaboration, both the community school director and the principal were asked to give advice to others with the same positions in community schools.
Mejia: As a CSD, I would say to the principal that it’s important to understand that although you’re the leader of the school, you have to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Listen to the people around you. That’s really important. They want to feel valued and appreciated. Don’t be dismissive of what they have to say. You’ll only know what ideas they have and what initiatives you can have in your school if you sit down and have a conversation with them.
Farid: My advice to principals would be that being a community school is worth the investment, but just like anything else that goes on in a school, the principal’s initial investment is the driving force.
If you wanted notebooks in your school to look a certain way, you would write a memo. You would meet with every teacher. You would show up to every classroom to look at notebooks to see that it’s sticking.
If you want community schools to happen, you use a similar lens to speak about it. You’ll be present for it. You’ll show up.
I also think it’s an opportunity to reimagine how to get support for your school. When you are partnered with somebody who presents you with a new set of resources and new staff, that can be transformative. I do think it’s worth the investment.
I think that CSDs, by and large, are very qualified folks who are very underappreciated. That’s why there’s a high turnover rate. That’s why there’s sometimes a disgruntled or defeated tone, because they have half the salary and twice the work. That’s not sustainable all the time.
So the least a principal can do is make the investment to be side by side with them. Because without the principal’s support, you’re going to be defeated.
Mejia: I would say to community school directors that there’s going to be times where it will be trying and difficult. Remember that you started working as a community school director for a reason. At the end of the day, everything that we’re doing is for the kids. All the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears, it’s all for them. So if we keep that at the forefront of our work, we’ll be able to accomplish a lot of things.
Also, don’t be afraid to speak your mind. I was sometimes hesitant to say certain things, and I wish I had spoken out more about ideas that I had. I waited too long sometimes, and it was too late to carry out the idea. Don’t be afraid because that’s part of why you’re there: to bring in a new lens, a new perspective. You’re in the position to do that work.
Farid: I would say that there’s a need for perseverance at the community school director level. You need to be strategic and be a problem solver. The best way to showcase your work to the principal is to do it first on a small scale and demonstrate to the principal that it works, so you get the green light to make it big.
And to Merody’s point, don’t be afraid to speak out a little. What’s the worst that could happen?
Community School Fact Sheet
School Name: Paul J. Dunbar Middle School
Location: Bronx, NY
Community School Since: 2015
Enrollment: 208 Students, Grades 6-8
CBO: Children’s Aid
Principal: Mr. Hesham Farid
Community School Director: Ms. Merody Mejia
For any schools interested in becoming a community school, do not hesitate to call (212-636-6100) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) today!